Sounds a bit arrogant, doesn’t it?
I mean, can I really just stand before the world and proclaim my expertise without any outside verification? After all, I’m not a "literary critic" or a publisher. I’m not a college professor or a librarian. And I’ve never actually written a guys book either.
My expertise doesn’t come from any of these outside sources at all. In fact, nothing about my expertise has to do with "the outside."
That’s because I became an expert on guys books during the 8 months that I spent inside—-grounded for lipping off to my parents when I was in the sixth grade.
Now, it may shock some of you to hear that a kid could spend 8 months grounded, but you probably didn’t grow up in the late 1970s or early 1980s either. "Time Out" hadn’t been invented yet. When you lipped off to your mom and dad in my generation, you either got a good ol’ fashioned whooping with the family belt or you were grounded.
My parents were pros at both.
My incarceration began innocently enough one spring afternoon. Dad asked me to take the garbage out. "Nope," I replied. "I’m playing Atari."
"Fine," he replied. "You’re grounded for a week then."
"Let’s make it two!" I wise-cracked back.
"How about three?" he asked.
By the time I realized he wasn’t kidding, I had an 8-week sentence. And my parents were hard-core times ten. "Grounding" literally meant being in my room ALL THE TIME with the exception of school, bathroom breaks, meals and church—-no exceptions and no time off for good behavior.
Making matters even worse was that cable television and Sony Playstation hadn’t been invented yet. Come to think of it, neither had CD players, MP3 players, Gameboys or any other digital device to keep a brother entertained.
All I had was a bookshelf, an AM radio and a whole heck of a lot of time on my hands!
I started by trying to wait my parents out. I figured if I stared at the ceiling long enough, they’d relent and release me from my bonds. It took me about two days to realize I was wrong—and about four to realize that staring at the ceiling for 8 weeks might just drive me insane.
So I did the unthinkable: I started reading the books on my bookshelf.
I ripped through Blubber by Judy Blume and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. I read The Boy Scouts with the Allies in France by Howard Payson and Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. I read Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
When those were done, I picked up Rascal by Sterling North and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. I read Julie of the Wolves, My Side of the Mountain and On the Far Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
By that point, I’d been grounded for about four months.
So I read them again.
(It was either that, or start plugging through the dictionary.)
By the time I was paroled, I’d done a lot of thinking about books, that’s for sure. At the time, if you were to ask me what made a book worth reading, I would have boiled it down into something simple—like:
A good book has boys, dogs, adventure and guts.
Come on. I’m a guy. What would you expect from the gender that finds hours worth of fun in piles of dirt, burping competitions, and television shows like Cops?
But looking back on it now, what I realize is that all of the books on my sixth grade bookshelf had one thing in common: Really interesting characters that were involved in challenging situations and who relied on the support of good friends—humans or animals—for support.
Think about it: Do you remember the boy in Old Yeller being saved by his beloved dog from the wild pigs? That was amazing, wasn’t it? I literally cried when he had to put down Yeller—-and I truly believe (as does country music band, Confederate Railroad) that you should discount anyone as friends if they didn’t.
Do you remember the friendships that Julie in Julie of the Wolves made with Amaroq and the wolf pack? They were tight, yo! How about the way that the Logan family stood up to Wallaces—-and stood up for ol’ TJ—-in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry?
Those themes just resonate with me. I guess it’s because I’m a sucker for a friend—-and for the idea that friends can overcome anything together. My friends have always been important to me—-and I’ve always been willing to do absolutely anything for those I am the closest to, regardless of the pain or challenge that it causes me.
Those same themes drive my reading choices now—only I’ve drifted away from fiction. I’m a biography junkie now, reading titles about boy soldiers in African conflicts, world leaders who were faced with difficult decisions, mountaineers who attempt to summit the world’s highest peaks or women who are faced with challenges because they live their lives behind the burqa.
In every title, I’m looking for the moments where characters lift one another up in the face of injustice. I love trying to imagine what I would do if I were in the same positions—-and trying to imagine whether or not my friends would have helped me. I’m as attached to books about human relationships today as I was when I was staring at the ceiling when I was twelve.
Only I’m not grounded anymore!
And that’s a good thing.
Bam Bam Bigelow